Thursday, June 26, 2008


It has been over four years since I joined the Army. Three since I moved from Reserve to Active-Duty.

It's been a long, strange experience. Who knows why I joined? I had friends who were just coming back from the first phase of the war, and part of me felt guilt at having not shared their burden. I came from a long line of military, and so it only seemed natural that I should join. Sure, I didn't know if I was comfortable with the thing, but I went in anyway, thinking perhaps I might learn something.

I did learn something, I think. But I'm not sure what that is.

This last few years has been hard on my marriage. I've endured a lot of stress, a lot of fear, a lot of loneliness. I endured fifteen months in a warzone, returning thankfully intact to my wife, but with a lot of feelings that I still don't understand. For years, I've been thanked by strangers for my service, but after hearing it so many times I'm no longer sure what that means.

Thank me for what? For leaving my family behind? For punishing myself daily with fear and anger, praying every day that another mission wouldn't come up, that another bridge wouldn't go down If I had felt like I had actually done something, it might have mattered. But I don't. I languished for fifteen months, told I was doing good things, only to find that nothing changed. Nothing good came of what I did over there. Nothing ever improved, nobody's life was made better. Instead, things only got worse. With every month I was down there, the mortar and small-arms attacks only got worse. Our motor pool was shelled with increasing frequency and accuracy. It might have made a difference, but even when I WASN'T on mission, the reality of my situation was inescapable. I neglected myself and my marriage for fifteen months, and for what? Nothing. A bridge goes down, another comes up, only to be destroyed a week later.

A lot of soldiers turn to their faiths in times of war. So did I. But again, for what? I'm a Buddhist, have been since I was fifteen. My command in life is to end suffering. So it was with me. I was a builder of bridges. I was supposed to heal the wounds. But I healed nothing. Instead, my faith became ever harder to hold on to, and when I DID find time to practice I did so in solitude. Such alone-time is more precious than water in that place. You cannot know the price I paid for it.

Ease suffering, first your own and then that of others. This is the directive of my faith. But how did I do that? Every time I went up in the guard tower, went out on mission, went to the MHE yard for haji-watch, the same thing. The same dirty, battered, gaunt people, begging me for food, for clean water, for hygiene supplies, trying to sell me any damned thing they could get their hands on. Meanwhile, all over Iraq, every dumpster, every latrine, every DFAC emblazoned with the logo of a company whose contractors make $90,000 a year, tax free. People grow rich, I grow comfortable on fat combat-pay bonuses, while outside the gate the people I'm supposed to be helping are starving and dying. See the lines of Iraqi women outside the gate, some sick, others waiting to be allowed in to where their husbands or children lay mangled in an Air Force Tactical Hospital. I pat down their neighbors and search them for contraband, me with my M-16 at amber, blind to their sufferings.

I have the power to aid a man with parcel of food of my MRE, with a drink from my water bottle, or even from the comfort of an American cigarette, and still my command chain tells me to stand by and do nothing. I always knew that service meant sacrifice, but I never thought I'd have to sacrifice my faith, my ideals for that.

And again, I did this not for 12 months, but for fifteen.

I got angry--of course I got angry. I began to question the wisdom of what I was doing there. I began to hate my situation, began to hate the place I was fighting to save. I began to doubt the wisdom of my service, and I said as much. I spoke up--I objected to the war, on this blog, because I knew I couldn't do it openly in the line of duty. And for what? As soon as I opened my mouth, I was shunned, reviled. I received death threats, threats to my career. It got so bad that I feared I might be compromised. Instead of thanking me for my service now, I had people telling me I deserved to die, deserved to suffer for my "treason." Suddenly, my service no longer mattered. I was just an enemy. To hear these things, all while news about the war disappeared from the networks, and after a THREE-MONTH-EXTENSION no less, made me feel like I was forgotten by the American people. I felt alone. I felt abandoned. I felt like nothing was going to get better.

I sacrificed my safety, my health, my sanity, my spirituality, and almost my family, and for what? To be told I wasn't welcome. Just like Vietnam, I found myself spat upon by portions of the American public. But this time, it's wasn't some long-haired protester. No, no... it was the very people cheerleading the war.

What is the point?

I'm getting out now, and I'm glad. I'm so tired, and I have so many pent-up emotions left to deal with. I feel like I strained myself to the breaking point, and still feel guilt that I didn't do enough. My friends are still over there, some have died. More will die. And all the while, nothing back in the States changes. We're still just a soap-opera and horse-race. We don't actually mean anything to anyone who matters.

And now I have to come back home, struggling with the emotions I carry, and when I return I know that people will see my IVAW T-shirt, my beard, my shaggy hair, and they will think me worse than someone who didn't serve at all. They will think me a traitor, an enemy to my country.

I sacrificed all I had, and for what? For this?

Keep it, I say. I don't want it anymore. I'm not going back. I never thought that anyone could make me regret serving my country. But I do. I wish I'd never signed up.

I wish I could take this all back.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Names on Rosters

My time with this record is coming to an end soon. You need to know that.

I have less than a month left. I have a lot going on. I have to start clearing soon; I need to start updating my resume. I'm getting ready to leave Germany, and when I touch back down in the States it will not be as a soldier, but as a veteran. I'm going to Michigan to see my family for a few days, and then I'm going to be moving out West to start my new life.

Things for me have changed. I joined Iraq Veterans Against the War--I've added them to my blogroll, and several of my compatriots are listed there as well. I feel good about the decision--after all, it's time I stood up for what I believe in--but still, it makes me sad that it should have had to come this.

I'll be honest: I'm scared. For four years, the Army has been a part of my life, three of that on Active-Duty. There is a comfort, a routine to things in this life, even when you're miserable. Field problems, deployment scares, and long hours be damned, there's comfort in at least knowing that you're getting paid. There's comfort in knowing that the medical bills will be handled. Now, I'm getting ready to leave that. After who knows how long, I'm finally getting out from under that umbrella. Soon, the Army won't be able to tell me who I am anymore. And I am grateful for that.

I'm tired of this way of life. It's not who I am. It's not the person I want to be. I did my time with honor, and in turn it strained my faith in the government, in the Army, in my fellow Americans to the breaking point. I have dreams, goals, a life of my own. I have a wife who needs me; I have a family to start. I have a bond with my Buddhist faith to re-establish. I have a book to try and publish, plus any number of others to begin writing. I'm planning to write a travel memoir about my trip West, covering the transition back to a civilian existence. I don't know where I'll be in a year, I don't know WHO I will be. But I do know this: the life I've lived for three years isn't the one I want anymore. It's just been too draining, too hard. It feels like I've been rucking it forever. I need to take a knee. I feel like I've earned it.

But will it be enough?

I'm in a small and highly specialized MOS. Our workload is brutal, our turnover rates high. Like every other soldier, when I joined I knew that I would spend several years after my tour in what is called the Individual Ready Reserve. Though I may be a civilian; though I may have any number of other obligations, all of that can be upended at any time by a letter from Department of the Army. At any time until early into the next decade, I can be called back for another year in Iraq, plus the five months it takes to train. Theoretically, they can do this as many times as they want. It doesn't even have to be in my MOS. They could send me out with Infantry, they could send me out as Convoy Security.

Once, when speaking to my recruiter, my wife asked him about this IRR thing. His response? "You'll basically be National Guard--you'll only get called up to handle stateside emergencies. But that's never even happened. Y'all don't have anything to worry about."

Looking back, maybe he believed it, maybe he didn't. But I know now that, in my MOS, the chances of me being called up are close to a hundred percent. The good SFC was wrong. Make no mistake: I WILL be called back. It's just a matter of when. Doesn't matter that I've come to reject this war, doesn't matter that I've come to reject war in general. In the eyes of the Army--indeed, in the eyes of most Americans--I raised my right hand. I signed the contract. I took an oath to both the Constitution and then the President of the United States, and I'm bound to uphold that, even when the two contradict each other.

It is clear to me now that I made a mistake.

The war was wrong. All right? It was wrong, and we allowed ourselves to be fooled into going along. The blood is on all our hands. People are starving, people are dying, and if you think that anyone who matters will actually stop this, you're fooling yourself. Part of this is why I joined IVAW. I don't like it, but what other choice do I have? I'm either part of the problem or part of the solution. In truth, I'm sick of being angry. I'm sick of protesting things. All I want is to live my life with Anne at my side. I want children. I want to write books for young people, and I want to pursue my faith.

But you know what else I want? I want to stop feeling guilty for having not done enough. I want the headlines to not affect me, every single day. I want one man's decisions to stop having a direct impact on my future, on my family's future. I want someone to see my name on the roster and pass me by. I want them to think: "Hey, this guy shows he's married. Did his time, got out. Maybe he got out for a reason." That would be nice. It would be nice to think that we, as soldiers, are viewed as people too. Not as heroes, not as idol figures, but as people.

But we're not. And I know it. To the people who matter, we're all just another name on a roster.

We'll never be more than names on the roster. Rosters of the deployable, rosters of the fallen. Rosters of the ruined.